The pace and extent of ice destabilization along West Antarctica’s coast varies according to differences in regional climate, according to a new study.

The researchers combined satellite imagery and climate and ocean records to obtain the most detailed understanding yet of how the West Antarctic Ice Sheet—which contains enough ice to raise global sea level by 11 feet, or 3.3 meters—is responding to climate change.

The findings in Nature Communications show that while the West Antarctic Ice Sheet continues to retreat, the pace of retreat slowed in a key region between 2003 and 2015, driven by ocean temperatures, which were in turn caused by variations in offshore winds.

The marine-based West Antarctic Ice Sheet, home to the vast and unstable Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers, sits on an underwater landmass peaking 1.5 miles, or 2.5 kilometers, below the ocean’s surface.

Since the early 1990s, scientists have observed an abrupt acceleration in ice melt, retreat, and speed in this area, which is attributed in part to human-induced climate change over the past century.

Previous studies indicated that the observed changes could be the onset of an irreversible, ice-sheet-wide collapse, which would continue independently of any further climate-driven influence.

“The idea that once a marine-based ice sheet passes a certain tipping point it will cause a runaway response has been widely reported,” says lead author Frazer Christie at Cambridge University. “Despite this, questions remain about the extent to which ongoing changes in climate still regulate ice losses along the entire West Antarctic coastline.”

Using observations collected by an array of satellites, the new study found pronounced regional variations in how the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has changed since 2003 due to climate change, with the pace of retreat in the Amundsen Sea Sector, an area of West Antarctica facing the Pacific Ocean, having slowed significantly. That’s in contrast to the neighboring Bellingshausen Sea Sector, closer to the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, where glacier retreat accelerated during that time.

By analyzing climate and ocean records, the researchers linked these regional differences to changes in the strength and direction of offshore surface winds. When the prevailing westerly winds are stronger, more of the deeper, warmer ocean water reaches the surface and increases the rate of ice melt.

Ultimately, the study illustrates the complexity of the competing ice, ocean, and atmosphere interactions driving shorter-term changes across West Antarctica, and raises important questions about how quickly the icy continent will evolve in a warming world.

Read the full article about West Anarctica at Futurity .